Demon, You’re the Oni One for Me

Why do you draft Green? Don’t say it’s for the mana fixing. I’ve seen those pick orders that put Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama’s Reach over every other Green common. It’s true: Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama’s Reach are the best. And next comes Orochi Sustainer. But that’s not why you draft Green. Nope, you draft Green because you like fat. So why are you consistently overlooking some of the best fat in the set? Is it because it’s not Green?

Why do you draft Green?

Don’t say it’s for the mana fixing. I’ve seen those pick orders that put Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama’s Reach over every other Green common. It’s true: Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama’s Reach are the best. And next comes Orochi Sustainer.

But that’s not why you draft Green.

Is it for the combat tricks? I hope not. Combat tricks in Champions of Kamigawa are like nudity on national television: The first time you saw it, you were fascinated, but you’re getting to think that the whole thing has been overexposed. Every color but Blue has at least one instant-speed creature enhancer, and between you and me, I prefer White’s tricks to Green’s.

But anyway. It’s my opinion that you draft Green primarily in order to get big creatures. You won’t hesitate to take Sakura-Tribe Elder over Order of the Sacred Bell, but when no one’s watching, you’ll grab that Moss Kami instead of a superior, splashable pick. “Just signaling that I’m Green,” you say. Sure, sure. I love color signaling in Pack 3 as well. The point is, whatever other strengths it has, Green is the undisputed Color of Big Creatures. My previous Limited writing focused on debunking the Big Green myth, but not so today. Nope, in Champions of Kamigawa, Green has the best large creatures. And large creatures are great. Don’t feel guilty about drafting Moss Kami or Feral Deceiver. It’s fine if you sacrifice Sakura-Tribe Elder in order to fetch another Forest.

So, just one more question: Why do you keep passing demons? No, not Seizan, Perverter of Truth; Shimatsu the Bloodcloaked; and Kuro, Pitlord. The first of those is an undisputed high pick and the others really are trash rares. I mean Gutwrencher Oni and Painwracker Oni. It might not seem like a big deal to you. At this very moment, you might be wondering, “He’s going to spend all article ranting about two cards? About two uncommons?” Well, you can wonder all you’d like. Just stop passing the Oni.

At the risk of bringing the wrath of a flock of Limited experts down upon my head, I’ll mix my metaphors and go out on a limb to say that Gutwrencher and Painwracker Oni are the two of the best Black commons or uncommons in Champions of Kamigawa draft. Right now, I’m unsure of the relevance of the popular wisdom that places creature removal before all other spells. This card pool’s Black is incredibly deep and, significantly, filled with common removal and aggressive creatures. If you pass a great Black creature, you’ll probably push someone you’re feeding into Black, but if you pass a removal spell, those same players will usually take Black as a splash color. In today’s Limited, Black is so powerful that it’s rarely overdrafted, and the ferociousness of the small Black common creatures assists fast beatdown decks, not removal-burdened control like was popular in triple-Mirrodin draft. Considering this, let’s compare the Oni with other roundly-lauded Black cards in Champions of Kamigawa.

There’s Befoul, an initially-overrated, expensive, sorcery-speed removal spell. Befoul would have been loads better back in Mirrodin Block. Nowadays, draft games are high-tempo and, significantly, feature bucketfuls of dangerous Black creatures. A better pick, on the other hand, is Swallowing Plague. Swallowing Plague will often cost no more than Befoul (remember, your opponent’s little monsters will likely have a toughness of two), can target Nezumi Ronin, will gain you life, and can support splicing.

But I’m not here to push Swallowing Plague; you folks first pick it already. Swallowing Plague still doesn’t hold a candle to the two Oni. When comparing removal to creatures, we must make our judgments on the following basis: How likely is it that the creature I would remove with my removal spell would be better than the creature I could now pick? This approach is overly simplistic, in part because it ignores casting costs, yet this case, where we’re comparing five-mana creatures with four-mana sorceries, is not particularly complex. Barring the presence of creature enchantments, Swallowing Plague and Befoul will nearly always represent a one-for-one trade because, unlike Rend Spirit and Rend Flesh, they can’t be used as combat tricks. As mentioned above, Befoul’s usefulness is limited by its inability to hit the environment’s many excellent Black creatures. Similarly, while great at cutting down a pesky Kitsune Diviner, Swallowing Plague is prohibitively expensive against opposing bombs like Keiga, the Tide Star (Good luck, Pirate!) and semi-bombs like Moss Kami. Chances are slim that either removal spell will take out a creature as deadly as our demons. Mind you, our two Oni come with some disadvantages as well, but we’ll discuss those later (Not because I’m lazy. Because I’m special.).

Like Swallowing Plague, neither Rend Spirit nor Rend Flesh will consistently kill creatures as powerful as the Oni. Nonetheless, it’s worth pointing out that they require only a single Black mana source and could tempt other drafters to splash for or go into Black in Pack 2.

One card I always see picked highly is Hideous Laughter, and I’m not really sure why. Hideous Laughter is a great spell – In a non-Black deck. Black hasn’t been as aggressive a draft color in years, and the only playable, non-rare Black creatures that can survive -2/-2 are the two demons in question. If you make it a habit of holding back your Black creatures until after you cast Hideous Laughter, you’ll lose early and often. Unfortunately, Hideous Laughter is also difficult to splash.

A popular early pick is the powerful Nezumi Cutthroat, but this creature is not generally a game-breaker. I opt for the drama of demons although, in common with Rend Spirit and Rend Flesh, the temptation of Nezumi Cutthroat could put your neighbor into Black. Also in the rat family is Nezumi Graverobber, the only Black common or uncommon I prefer to the demons. On Turn 2, it’s the best creature available in any color, and in the late game, it disrupts soulshift antics. Thankfully, due to the existence of print runs, I’ll never have to choose between the rat and the monster.

So, there you have it! If you’re playing an aggressive deck, you’ll want the demons todeal that last, extra bit of damage, and if you slant more toward control, you’ll need big, Black finishers.

Up to this point, I’ve based my arguments in favor of the Oni more on the relative weaknesses of other cards than on the demons’ actual strengths. In my mind (and here, I think I’m in the minority opinion), the two demons rate about equally. They are not, in fact, hated by drafters, but they are incredibly underrated all the same, and it’s usually possible to pick up one or two of them each draft. For the moment, we’ll ignore the existence of the demon-abetting ogres and assume that the Oni will never lose the disadvantage clauses attached to their rules texts. Even in this situation, they’re worth playing, worth picking extremely high.

We’ll start with Gutwrencher Oni (the one with trample, you lazy, non-hyperlink-clicking readers). Looking merely at its stats, Gutwrencher Oni is only moderately impressive. Certainly, I’d rather wait an extra turn to cast Moss Kami if I had the choice (and considering Green’s acceleration, I usually wouldn’t even have to wait an extra turn). When evaluating cards, however, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of archetype, and Champions of Kamigawa Black heavily pushes for a brutally aggressive strategy.

Of its common creatures, only Wicked Akuba truly begs for you to do path-clearing with removal spells, and that’s more a sign of how good Wicked Akuba is than how wonderful removal is; simply as a 2/2 creature for two mana, Wicked Akuba is strong in draft. When I play an Aggro Black draft deck and cast Gutwrencher Oni on Turn 5, I rarely end up discarding a card on Turn 6. This isn’t because I have an ogre in play; it’s because I have nothing left to discard. If you’re drafting cheap creatures like Nezumi Ronin, Wicked Akuba, Cruel Deceiver, and Nezumi Cutthroat, you’ll probably have Gibbering Kami, Scuttling Death, and the demons at the top of your mana curve. Unless you happen to be holding both a demon and Scuttling Death on turn 5, you’re unlikely to be bothered by Gutwrencher Oni’s discard clause.

Of course, there’ll be times when you’ll draw a removal spell with Gutwrencher Oni on the board and will wish that you could hold onto that Rend Flesh instead of wasting it on an opposing Battle-Mad Ronin, but honestly, are you really going to complain when you have 5/4 trampler around? In such a situation, it’s worthwhile killing even a Battle-Mad Ronin instead of waiting for a bigger threat. With that Ronin out of the way, you might win with the demon a turn earlier. Incidentally, the only playable commons and uncommons that can single-handedly destroy Gutwrencher Oni while blocking are Nagao, Bound by Honor; Earthshaker; Moss Kami; Order of the Sacred Bell; Sosuke, Son of Seshiro; Nezumi Ronin; the two Oni; and more situationally, Feral Deceiver and Cruel Deceiver. Kami of Old Stone is, by the way, Gutwrencher Oni’s nightmare.

Painwracker Oni is rather more difficult to evaluate if only due to the fact that, without an ogre, its disadvantage is unavoidable. Of the two uncommon demons, Painwracker Oni is the critical favorite on account of its superior evasion and can only be blocked and killed by Cruel Deceiver, Nezumi Ronin, or another Oni. Absent ogres, Painwracker Oni’s disadvantage could be debilitating outside of an appropriately-constructed deck. Luckily, archetypal trends are, again, on the demons’ side: The popularity of Devouring Greed means that many players already drafting decks with sacrifice in mind. In Mirrodin Block, there were plenty of creatures which you wanted to go to the graveyard, but to the disappointment of Rust Elemental fans, most of them were like Goblin Replica and Pteron Ghost; they needed to be sacrificed to themselves, not something else. Today, zubera and the soulshift mechanic make creature sacrifice much less painful. Though playing Painwracker Oni could be interpreted as weakening the eventual effect of Devouring Greed, sacrificing a spirit for five damage is unarguably better than sacrificing one for a pair of opposing life lost and a pair of one’s own life gained.

To clarify my position: Even if no ogres existed, both Oni would be excellent first picks (assuming a balanced pack). Happily, ogres do exist, and all but one of them (the atrocious Deathcurse Ogre) are at least marginally playable without demons. Playing Blood Speaker in a demonless deck is hardly my idea of a good time, but considering that this card is just about the only thing that can convince some players to take an Oni, if you hope to draft a demon in the next pack, you might want to pick up Blood Speaker anyway. I don’t suggest trying to force a demon-draft (they are uncommons after all and won’t always be there), but if you haven’t been watching out for them, you might not yet realize how low most players rate the Oni and how late you can get them.

Without a demon around, Bloodthirsty Ogre isn’t too showy, but its three points of power still kill most commons and uncommons outside of White. Interestingly, when you do control a demon, Bloodthirsty Ogre doesn’t become considerably better; its ability is so slow that, by the time you could make use of it, your marauding (I swear, this hyperlink should go on a Magic card) Oni should have brought you victory.

Of the two common ogres, Villainous Ogre is clearly the best. Regeneration is fun, but I run this three-power three-drop in an aggressive even if I don’t have a demon. Sokenzan Bruiser is another story altogether. These are no longer the Mirrodin Block days when 3/3 creatures for five mana are acceptable. Against a deck with Red, I’ll play Sokenzan Bruiser out of the sideboard, but it’s not helpful that the ogre’s casting cost matches those of the Oni. On the other hand, I believe that, while most players are aware that the Bruiser is an ogre, this creature doesn’t have the same psychological effect during a draft, and it’s far less likely than Villainous Ogre to tempt someone to pick a demon. The same goes for Initiate of Blood, a superior creature but not, perhaps, an immediate star in an aggressive deck. In more control-oriented decks, however, Initiate of Blood is certainly the best ogre available; it is, sadly, also the most popular and highest-picked ogre.

The splitting of ogres between Black and Red suggests the reality, hints that B/R Aggro is the best home for Gutwrencher and Painwracker Oni. While Red does not, in contrast to Black, have many brilliant, fast creatures, it does include Akki Avalanchers, one of the most underrated creatures in the set. I wouldn’t dare call these goblins top-of-the-line attackers, but like Battle-Mad Ronin, they’ll consistently attack unblocked or deter attacks in the early game and can, in the late game, deal more damage than any one-drop should. I only mention Akki Avalanchers because you can usually pick them far later than is logical; I’ve snatched them up when they’ve been the last card in a pack, and it’s a real coup to find even borderline payables at the bottom of the barrel.

There are those of you who’ve been drafting demons all along, and I applaud your good taste. I understand that my picking the Oni over removal may strike many as strange and could be a result of some peculiarity in my drafting style, but regardless, the uncommon demons are remarkably underestimated. Whereas I would rarely pick Moss Kami over a removal spell in a primarily Green deck, Black has the ability to make large creatures work. The early pressure you can put on your opponents with Cruel Deceiver, Wicked Akuba, and Nezumi Ronin means that even the blockable Gutwrencher Oni won’t often face the same opposition that Moss Kami does. The two are assets to nearly every heavily Black deck that is not completely geared toward control, whether or not these decks contain ogres.

-Adam Grydehøj

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